Maryland officials have ordered public schools to remain closed until May 15 as deaths from the coronavirus pandemic continue to rise in the state.
The decision, announced Friday by Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon, means Maryland stopped short of joining a growing number of states that have closed schools for the rest of the academic year, requiring students to finish their spring work remotely.
At a State House news conference with Gov. Larry Hogan, Salmon said she made the order after “extensive consultation with the State Board of Education and leading public health experts."
She said students must continue learning remotely as the state evaluates the spread of the virus that has infected more than 11,500 Marylanders and killed more than 400.
“This is one of those decisions we need to make incrementally,” Salmon said of not closing schools for the entire year. “We’ll take it little by little, once we see what the results are.”
More than half of U.S. states have closed schools for the academic year, including neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia. The District of Columbia closed schools through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, as well, and Delaware’s governor has said his state likely will do the same.
Maryland school districts typically are in session until mid- to late June.
Salmon’s action was met with support from the state’s teachers’ union.
“This is the right decision for the safety and health of our students, educators and state," said Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost, a Baltimore County elementary school teacher. "Everyone’s safety is paramount, but we remain hopeful that educators and students will be able to spend time together again at their schools before this school year is over.”
Some teachers and parents were surprised that Maryland did not close down schools Friday for the remainder of the school year, but they weren’t necessarily disappointed by the gradual approach.
Cindy Sexton, president of the union that represents Baltimore County teachers, said teachers are still wishing for a couple of weeks of school.
“They are holding out hope they will be able to connect with their students," Sexton said. “They realize it is not likely to happen.”
Some teachers and students would be happy to go back for just two weeks in June, particularly seniors who could have their last days of school.
But Sexton said teachers also understand that “nothing is more important than the safety or the health of the people involved.”
Salmon said last week that she was ramping up online and distance-learning capabilities in case schools must remain closed even into the 2020-2021 academic year. Some epidemiologists have said the state could see a second wave of the virus in the fall.
She said Friday that all school systems must submit to the Maryland State Department of Education plans for ongoing remote learning.
The plans must include accountability measures for assessing student performance; professional development plans; and a description of how the school systems plan to address equity for special education students, English learners and homeless students, the superintendent said.
Salmon added that the state is helping school systems to obtain take-home computing devices for students and to expand broadband capabilities. She noted a federal government stimulus package is slated to bring $207 million more in funding for Maryland’s schools to help address such needs.
And, the superintendent said she’s working with local school systems to recognize high school seniors.
“We want seniors and their families to have the opportunity to recognize their wonderful accomplishments from their time in high school and receive their diplomas," she said.
Parents are concerned about how their children will get back on track after a long school closure.
“My concern is what is going to happen next year. They are attempting continuity of learning now to have something for the kids, but it is not the greatest,” said Emory Young, the parent of two Baltimore County high school students.
“Kids have lost a quarter of the year. We are going to have to look at what other adjustments are going to have to be made to catch them up.”
Joe Kane, a Baltimore City school parent, said he is grateful students still will get food and some services.
“It is good that we are getting more guidance,” Kane said. “Parents are expecting schools to be closed for the rest of the yea, not sure why we haven’t made that decision.”
However, Kane said he is fine with Salmon’s decision to keep pushing the final decision out.
Prior to Friday, Salmon had ordered schools closed through April 24 while state officials evaluated the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Maryland officials are considering how they can slowly relax Hogan’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses and limiting gatherings. But before doing so, the governor said, he needs to see two consecutive weeks of decreasing deaths and hospitalizations from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
This week, the state experienced its “deadliest week to date” from the contagion.
But Hogan stressed the number of Marylanders who have recovered rose by 22% over the same time.
“We are beginning to see some hopeful and encouraging signs,” the governor said.
Any plans for reopening must come with expanded testing, an increase in protective gear and intensive care beds at hospitals, and a robust contact tracing operation to track the exposure of other people to someone with COVID-19, Hogan said. The state recently announced it had entered into an agreement with the University of Maryland School of Medicine for an operation that eventually will be able to test up to 20,000 people a day.
The governor reminded Marylanders that beginning Saturday, they must cover their faces to go into stores or ride public transportation. He responded to objections ― including from some planning a protest demanding the state reopen its economy ― that the masks infringe on personal liberty.
“Spreading this disease infringes on your neighbors’ rights,” Hogan said.
The Maryland Department of Health added 788 cases Friday to the state’s tally for a count of 11,572 overall — and another 33 deaths pushed the fatality count to 425. The state included 69 probable deaths in its count, a designation that denotes people who likely died from COVID-19 but the illness has not been confirmed with laboratory testing.
Meanwhile, the health department reported 2,612 people have been hospitalized for complications associated with the new virus, a figure that went up by 161 in the last 24 hours.